By: RaJean Walker
Throughout my life, my self esteem has been volatile like the steam of a kettle. Sometimes that’s as a result of a burning achievement. Bout more often than not, it is a puff of fog that threatens to drown me each time I fail. I am a person that bases her sense of self on her failures rather than her accomplishments.
This has been a thirty six year roller coaster of brief ups and elongated downs. I was the nerdy teacher’s pet who was picked on at school to decades later when I received accolades for my writing and scholarships for my academics. I struggle to value my achievements though and dwell on what isn’t perfect in my life. Whilst it felt harsh at the time, I was fortunate my parents pushed me through my early years when giving up and failing was easier than pushing on as I knew deep down, I was far from exceptional. I have had to learn as an adult how to keep puffing up my own head of steam.
My first adult job was as a 911 dispatcher. For ten years, I was the first responder for horrific situations, and often felt helpless being at the end of the phone. Some shifts, I would be intoxicated with the lives I affected, knowing that on my watch, no one was injured and everyone came out alive. Other days, I would be near suicidal after someone I could not get a ‘real first responder’ to fast enough died, or a child was injured. As a self-loather, the constant roller coaster kept me in that field for a decade. I would replay calls, thinking I could have handled them better. I berated myself for harmless mistakes, and doubted my ability to thrive rather than wither. When I was surrounded by the fog of self doubt, I knew the darkness would clear because I would have the chance to save a life the next day or the day after.
I married young which is the main reason real life called and I went into the workforce rather than go straight onto college and university. I had dreamt of being a young mother since I was five and yet for seven years my husband and I tried to no avail. My marriage nearly ended, in all truth, it was at its end, when I found out I was pregnant. To this day, I feel less of a person because I couldn’t hold my marriage together, although it’s partly offset in my pride of my daughter. Unfortunately, my own self-esteem is now dampened by her accomplishments. Who gets jealous when their daughter wins writing and art contests? I do. I have never been as brave as she and she is only eleven years old. Yet, I now find my bravery to pursue my dream through the zest of life role-modeled by my daughter’s.
At thirty years old, I have mustered the courage to answer a calling I have had since first grade. I began college as an adult to become a writer. Finally getting here though, so late in life shown a spotlight on my inadequacies. I felt I was too old, I didn’t belong; I wouldn’t succeed. Yet, I found myself thriving in this environment. But as my journey went on, my self esteem grew to its all time highest. Not only was I achieving at a level I never thought I was capable, but I lead clubs and assisted teachers, I tutored classmates and became close with my professors. I was needed. I was considered one of the best of the best and respected by students and professors. The day I walked to receive my two year degree was the proudest that my inner self had experienced. I walked to receive my degree knowing that I had put forth a hundred percent and received the same in return. I was on cloud nine.
Full of steam post community college, I began my Bachelor’s Degree. My major was Secondary Education with a focus on English. Everyone should be given the tools to read and write, and I would help the slowest achieve that. Instead, it was I who was failing. Math, the devil to most lovers of literature and English did me in. After four attempts, I could not pass that portion of the state Praxis exam. I studied relentlessly, weekly, then daily and still could not meet the required standard. It has been two years, and I think about it every day.
I’ve told myself every cliché in the book to soothe the burn, especially, “Everything happens for a reason.” But the day I changed my major, it was not only that I failed at the path I had chosen three years before, it also felt as if I failed thousands of high school students I wanted to inspire. It was also the day I stopped putting forth more effort than the automated version of myself. I had already gotten behind a semester because of the Praxis exam and thus did not graduate with those I started with, but I had developed strong connections to my professors and mentors. Only because of them, the English department of my University, did I see my degree through.
I graduated with a Bachelor’s Degree in English Literature. But the rub is I feel I didn’t earn it. It has been six months and only now am I finding some clarity through the fogged up window of my life. Sometimes it takes insane courage to rescue myself from self pity. For me, that was enrolling into a Master’s Program. Not only did it give me reason to go on, in fact it gave me a locomotive-like push forward to help me find the best in me, rather than the version of me who perches on the couch, considering ways to get out of living and breathing. I missed the best version of me that spoke of literature with grace; the person who lit up an intelligent conversation, or sighed at the romance of a sentence. I chose to write more, I use my love for words, grammar, and punctuation to lift me back up.
It is a day to day situation in this head of mine. As a stay at home mother, studying part time, and needing to earn an income to support us, life is demanding. My first attempt at an online job ended with my dismissal, when I thought I was excelling. I divert my attention rather than feel the pain by spending time on the internet: but it cannot save me even if I pretend it can. Then there are days like today. I am going to finalize my paperwork for my degree, this distant achievement that is costing me a fortune in debt. Irrational thoughts of constant failure cloud over me. Yet at other times, there are moments I feel so proud I could burst until it sinks in how useless a master’s degree in literature is. No one cares about the humanities anymore and without experience, I am no better off than I was five years ago. Yet, rationally I know without a doubt I am an entirely different to the person I was then.
Back to the steam that fills my nose, drowns my lungs and blinds my eyes until all I want to do is sleep. But I have a brilliant daughter, a loving husband of twenty years and a future. Don’t I? The inner conversations are constant. They have to be, because if they go quiet, it is probably the end. There are no inspirational quotes or self-help books, there is only me, myself and my irrational battling my rationale for my soul. Whether it takes a week, months, or years, I manage to always come out alive and full steam ahead while I fight my self- esteem because it tells me I can’t, or I won’t. But I will. I do. Choo. Choo.